- Toward a Science of Consciousness
Imagine a biennial conference that has been running for 8 years about a topic that is at the very center of our understanding—a conference that draws together scientists, doctors, philosophers, artists, para-scientists and a fair share of other "outsiders." What could they possibly agree on? This year at the Toward the Science of Consciousness Studies conference at Tucson, the answer was simple: no one knew what consciousness was.
If you find such a scenario stimulating, then this conference would have met all your expectations; if, alternatively, such an imaginary scenario fills you with horror, then perhaps consciousness studies is not for you. One thing is certain—regardless of what discipline you have been trained in, imaginative leaps are the order of the day just to begin to understand what is at stake in these discussions. For this reason (and a whiff of political correctness), the individual voices of the speakers seemed as significant as the subjects being argued. As a result, much of the material at Tucson this year came from the point of view of first-person experience rather than in the dry, detached tones one might expect in a scientific conference.
That is not to say that the experiments were designed without scientific rigor, nor that universal and generalized conclusions were not drawn, but the necessary trans-disciplinarity of the discourse imposed a welcome modesty—particularly as some of the claims became most unsettling. Dick Bierman, for example, began by reminding us that science was not concerned with miracles, and then discussed his results with fMRI on subjects who appeared to anticipate emotional stimuli, responding in advance to the horrific pictures in a random set of benign and malign images. Similarly, Dean Radin's evidence seemed to show that global thought could affect a global network of random-number generators. More speculative suggestions came from the panel that dealt with sleep behavior disorders (parasomnias) and the proposal, argued by Petra Stoerig, that we might need to revisit the cultural hierarchy between sleep and wakefulness (much as Fellini suggested in virtually all of his films). Perhaps the most transgressive suggestions came from Charles Tart, who, it seems, has prized himself out of retirement to tackle the qualitative difference between hypnosis, meditation and consensus consciousness, since younger scientists cannot afford the risk.
None of these fascinating interventions illuminated the causality of consciousness, nor did they yield fuller or more satisfactory descriptions. What they did achieve was a radical challenge to the mono-disciplinarity of Western thought that now stands as a barrier to intellectual growth. The thrust of much that was presented at Toward a Science of Consciousness called for imagination as a part of a research method, not as a distracting diversion at the end of a hard day in the laboratory. For this reason, consciousness studies is a prime site for scientists and artists to collaborate, to fuse their distinct and specific skills into a new and powerful instrument of enquiry—what was clear in the week of presentations and poster sessions was that this was generally understood in the "coffee crowd."
But old (cultural) habits die hard, and it was with some regret that very often, the imaginative arts were not subjected to the same courtesy that the laboratory rats enjoyed. At worst, high-profile speakers were embarrassingly ill-informed and unashamedly philistine in their reckless treatment of scholars' work in the humanities; often, however the point was simply missed in the theatrical rhetoric of academic performance. In exceptional contrast to this was Amy Ione's measured and courageous presentation, in which she spoke on equal terms with both artists and neurological scientists and, if nothing else, showed a model of how these constituencies might collaborate in terms of mutual respect and even consideration. [End Page 89]The fact that she was an exception was a great pity, especially since there is a wealth of other engaging speakers informed by high-quality scholarship that could have been drawn upon.
The research project at...